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Pittsburgh Penguins 2020 summer training camp: 3 questions to shape the team

The most interesting items to learn about the Penguins in their summer camp

2019 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series - Practice Sessions & Family Skate Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s the day that NHL training camps finally reopen, and the plans that coaches have been no doubt working on, thinking about and re-thinking about since mid-March when the league stopped can finally be enacted.

What’s the three biggest points to watch for the Penguins to answer? Glad you asked, let’s get to it.

#1 The goalie situation

NHL: FEB 23 Penguins at Capitals Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This is a no-brainer, discussed to death in breathless but uncertain terms all spring by fans who finally gets to see what happens. Most believe Matt Murray will be the team’s first choice as the starter, albeit with a short leash given his poor 2019-20 season. The team was already gearing up for Murray to have a chance to run with the job, he started four of the last five games (and was scheduled to make it five of six) prior to the season pause.

So the question really isn’t “who is going to be in net”, it’s going to be “what in the world is Matt Murray going to give the Pens?”

Murray was the top goalie in the league in the springs of 2016 and 2017 with a remarkable 22-9 record, rarely losing two in a row and allowing sub 2 goals per game with a .930ish save% and 21 quality starts to just two really bad starts. That Murray hasn’t been around in a while, though.

Murray has worked with a new personal goalie trainer this spring to help reset his positioning that was obviously flawed even to an observer, and we’ve often seen goalies can ebb and flow performances based of confidence and the mental aspect of their games. Has Murray resolved that? Will he be able to be his old (good) self and not his recent form of mediocrity?

It’s probably the biggest question the Pens have right now.

#2 Sidney Crosby’s other linemate

NHL: MAR 03 Senators at Penguins Photo by Justin Berl/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Coach Mike Sullivan has tipped his hands in spring interviews that he wisely is going to slot Jake Guentzel back on Sidney Crosby’s wing. It doesn’t take three months of isolation to realize that with their chemistry, you keep it together — even if Guentzel did play well with Evgeni Malkin.

To that end, Malkin and Bryan Rust achieved remarkable results this season and are also expected to be kept together.

If you see what’s developing, there are two open spots on the top-six.

Jason Zucker has been incredibly productive ever since joining Pittsburgh with 12 points in 15 games. He did that mostly with Crosby. Could Pittsburgh load up on a Zucker-Crosby-Guentzel line? That wouldn’t be the first time the team has turboed the lineup with the best two offensive wingers playing with No, 87.

There’s also the Conor Sheary piece of the puzzle to consider. Sheary was also brought back as a piece, and has worked with Crosby before, famously with the “Sid and the kids” line with Guentzel. Sheary’s spot in the lineup has been very fluid, with Sullivan even making him a fourth liner or scratch at times near the end of his last stint when Sheary was ice cold, production-wise.

Reuniting Sid and the Kids creates a natural soft landing spot for Zucker with Malkin+Rust, which would create one of the most exciting and skilled “second” lines in the game. But Sheary would have to prove his mettle and overcome production inconsistencies to make it all work.

Who knows if Patric Hornqvist will be considered, it seems like he has shifted into more of a third line role at even strength for stylistic reasons. Which is a bit odd since even if not a preferred option, Guentzel-Crosby-Hornqvist has also had a ton of success, as recently as the 2018 playoffs that line chewed up and spit out the Flyers. Philadelphia is a team the Pens might see early on in the playoff format, getting a grinding/wall-battle option for Crosby’s line would make some sense if so.

Whether it’s Zucker, Sheary or Hornqvist, whichever player emerges from camp with their number written beside 59-87 on the old chalkboard will be in a key position.

#3 Old legs heavy or rested?

NHL: MAR 08 Hurricanes at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Pens have seven players out of 18 in their expected playoff lineup who are 30 years or older (Crosby, Malkin, Hornqvist, Patrick Marleau, Kris Letang, Jack Johnson and the recently-turned 30 Justin Schultz).

Save Rust, Guentzel, and Brian Dumoulin, that makes a lot of really key skaters on the team that is older and has a lot of miles on the proverbial tires.

By contrast, Pittsburgh’s first round/play-in opponent, Montreal, has just three players 30+ (Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and Paul Byron).

Will the last four months have helped or hurt the older players? Will it be easier to shake the rust off and have more energy after the break? Or more of a challenge due to heavier legs and a lack of routine?

Sidney Crosby definitely looks focused and in top form, a player on a mission knowing the opportunity ahead. But at this point it looks impossible to judge which teams will click and play well in isolation, and which are going to be (even subconsciously) unable or unwilling to perform at top levels that will be needed against the best competition.

That’s going to make this whole return very fascinating, assuming they’re able to pull it off, is to see how teams and players respond to this totally unique and unprecedented challenge that they will be thrust into.